A Short History of Medieval Christianity

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G. R. Evans
I. B. Tauris Short Histories
  • London, England: 
    I. B. Tauris
    , March
     2017.
     256 pages.
     $15.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781784532833.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

G. R. Evans, Professor Emeritus of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University Cambridge, provides readers with king-sized information in an elfin package. Evans’s pace is quick, yet not disorienting, and she provides readers with a usable text that novices and experts alike will find beneficial. One of the greatest strengths of this book is its wide geographical markers. Evans does not limit her discussion to Western Europe or a select group; rather she looks at the entire range of Christian experience in the medieval era, including Western Christendom, Byzantium, North Africa, and various parts of the Middle East. Evans writes as one not only concerned with historical data, but also with how that data can inform our current day questions of globalization, migration, and interfaith interaction. 

Evans sets the stage by exploring the roots of Christendom in the early years of the Christian faith as it emerged from the context of Roman imperial rule, Jewish interaction, and other cultural and religious factors in late antiquity. The spread of Christianity coincided with various struggles within an increasingly fragile Roman Empire. Upon the establishment of Christianity as the preferred and eventually the official religion of Rome, the idea of Christendom was firmly established. Medieval Christianity came to be defined by both internal and external factors. Internally, conciliar decisions, the monastic movement, and an emerging sacramental system came to define Christians and the life of the Church. Externally, the rise of Islam in the 7th century came to have a significant and lasting impact on Christianity across the entire medieval landscape. In this particular area, Evans does an excellent job of balancing important and interesting details with the overall task of summarizing her topic. 

The first two chapters of the text are dedicated to the development of Christianity in its first thousand years, including ecumenical councils and the various debates of the faith. Evans dedicates chapter 3 to the various issues present at the turn of the first millennium. This includes the ongoing development of the sacraments, as well as their theological import and their practical efficacy. Monasticism continued to develop in medieval times, with new orders and reform movements abounding. Evans directs the readers’ attention to interesting cultural details otherwise absent in similar texts. 

Especially helpful for readers is chapter 4, on the relations between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. There were some bright lights in this climate, and Evans does well to highlight these individuals and events. The crusading movement overshadowed much of this period, however, and came to define much of the attitudes of Christians in particular. This provides a mirror onto today’s interreligious dialogues and interactions, allowing us to assess whether we are doing better. 

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the concluding centuries of the medieval age with the rise of the university and growing tensions related to religious dissension. The recognition of Christian reform occurred much earlier than the 15th and 16th centuries, a point that Evans illustrates well. Significant details are carefully woven throughout the fabric of these chapters. Specifically, chapter 5 provides a helpful assessment of the various Lateran councils and the social and moral issues they addressed. This period also included the ongoing work of seeking to repair the fractured Church between East and the West. In chapter 6, Evans’s ability to provide small vignettes on lesser-known figures and movements is nothing short of artistic. The final centuries of the medieval age were filled with religious turmoil and fracturing. The desire for reform was palpable. The story of these final centuries, as Evans relates, was just as much about repressing dissent as it was about its fomentation. 

Evans closes the text at the period of the Renaissance and the dawn of the Reformation, tying up the loose ends of medieval Christianity. Christendom was expanding across the globe, and so was Islam. Though there were significant changes, the Christian worldview was still the dominant one throughout Western and most of Eastern Europe. Though Christianity as a unquestioned cultural foundation has significantly waned in the past century, its formation in the medieval age is undeniable. Her expertise is on display with an attention to detail perfectly balanced by the need to summarize. Her ability to bring out some of the lost and forgotten voices of the era will give readers something that few short histories have done previously. 

Those looking for an engaging introductory text to medieval Christianity will find that Evans’s is the book to beat. That said, it is possible some may find her occasional decision to focus on some minutiae too distracting. This reviewer, however, found this refreshing and a much needed boost in a crowded landscape of introductory texts. Her desire to connect the medieval to the modern is subtle yet illuminating. Discerning readers will see how each chapter brings in historical concerns that have ongoing relevance in a globalized society. This book, like any other introductory text, necessarily leaves out many details. Nevertheless, it excels at providing a balance of summary and precision. This text will serve well for the undergraduate class in medieval studies or church history, the historian lacking this particular area in their training, or even the interested lay reader.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Coleman M. Ford is Adjunct Instructor of Church History at Boyce College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Co-Founder of the Center for Ancient Christian Studies.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

G. R. Evans is professor emeritus of medieval theology and intellectual history in the University Cambridge. Her many books include Augustine on Evil; Alan of Lille; The Thought of Gregory the Great; Anselm; The Medieval Theologians; Belief: A Short History for Today (I.B.Tauris, 2006); The Church in the Early Middle Ages (I.B.Tauris, 2007), The University of Cambridge: A New History (I.B.Tauris, 2009) and The University of Oxford: A New History (I.B.Tauris, 2010, paperback 2012).

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